Millions of people without electricity, hundreds rescued from hard-hit areas and a death toll that’s expected to climb — Hurricane Ian left in its wake seemingly incalculable damage as the heavy lift of recovery begins.
In a seldom-seen show of cooperation, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and President Joe Biden’s administration appeared to have put aside their differences to work on cleaning up debris and rebuilding.
But it’s not going to happen overnight.
Ian came ashore Wednesday in Southwest Florida as a Category 4 hurricane and carved its way through Central Florida on a northeastern path toward the Atlantic Ocean, where it exited the state and headed toward the Carolinas.
Punishing winds, life-threatening storm surge and flooding rocked areas such as Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties. Even after Ian was later downgraded to a tropical storm, DeSantis warned Floridians of rising waters “hundreds of miles from where (Ian) made landfall” in what he described as a “500-year flooding event.”
“The impacts of this storm are historic,” DeSantis said Thursday. “The damage that was done has been historic, and this is just (based) off initial assessments. There’s going to be a lot more assessing that goes on in the days ahead.”
Financial ratings agency Fitch Ratings said Thursday that an initial analysis indicated insured losses from Hurricane Ian could range from $25 billion to $40 billion, putting additional pressure on Florida’s troubled property-insurance market.
The human toll was slowly being calculated, as emergency responders ran search-and-rescue missions heading into the weekend.
State Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said during a Friday morning news conference that the state had received reports of 21 deaths, 20 of which are “unconfirmed” or not yet certain to have been caused by the storm. The deaths were in Charlotte, Collier and Polk counties. But the number was expected to increase.
Biden on Thursday said that “this could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida history” and that “we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life.”
The deadliest hurricane in Florida history was the September 1928 storm, which caused 2,500 to 2,800 deaths after it hit West Palm Beach and flooded communities around Lake Okeechobee. The 1935 Labor Day hurricane, which swept north after hitting the Florida Keys, caused more than 400 deaths.
Hurricane Michael, which hit Mexico Beach and decimated parts of Northwest Florida in 2018, is estimated to have caused 50 deaths. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 has been linked to 44 deaths.
COME TOGETHER, RIGHT NOW
The last time DeSantis and Biden looked past their clashes over politics and policy came after a condominium building collapsed last year in Surfside and killed 98 people.
In Ian’s aftermath, the two leaders were joining forces to provide relief to suffering Floridians.
Biden and DeSantis talked Thursday morning, with both saying that the state and federal governments will work together on rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts. Biden also said later he plans to visit Florida at a time when he will not get in the way of rescue efforts.
The president issued a major-disaster declaration, making federal assistance available to people in parts of Florida and providing help to the state and local governments with costs of debris removal and emergency-protective measures.
The federal government made individual assistance available to people in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Orange, Osceola, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota and Seminole counties.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said Friday the declaration will be expanded to more areas as Florida tries to recover from Ian.
“We are here to support this recovery. We know we’re still in the very active response stage,” Criswell said. “But we’ve already started planning for what the recovery is going to be because we know that this is going to be a very complicated and complex recovery.”
DeSantis said he appreciated “FEMA’s responsiveness” as the state continues assessing the impacts of Ian.
Florida also has received help from other states, while utilities from other parts of the country sent in line workers and equipment to help speed up power restoration.
“My message to the people of Florida, the country at times like this, America comes together,” Biden said Thursday after getting a briefing at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “We’re going to pull together as one team, as one America. First thing this morning as I talked to Gov. DeSantis and again offered the fullest federal support.”
LENDING A HAND
State officials this week activated the Florida Disaster Fund, allowing people to donate money for recovery efforts.
As of Friday morning, donors had given more than $12 million to the fund, which is administered by the Volunteer Florida Foundation, DeSantis said. Money will be used in conjunction with private organizations.
“Why is that important? FEMA has certain things they can do, via statute and regulation. But if it falls outside of that, they just can’t do it. That’s not the way it works. And so, when you enlist private organizations, they can be a little bit more nimble, they can tailor their response to maybe some of the more unique needs that citizens may have,” the governor said.
People can make tax-deductible donations by visiting the Disaster Fund page on Volunteer Florida’s website.